Tuesday, March 29, 2011

School information valuable, even if not perfect

Jennifer Buckingham

Few people could have failed to notice the launch of the new, improved version of the My School website earlier this month. Featuring funding information on each and every school in Australia, the website sparked a predictable wave of attacks and counter attacks from the usual suspects and who used the very same data to support very different perspectives.

The best examples of statistical subterfuge were the headlines of the two major NSW broadsheets on the day the website went public. The Australian had ‘No class divide in school spending: Public matches private,’ while The Sydney Morning Herald went with ‘Independent schools spend more on their students, My School shows.’ Same data, different slant.

Sectoral interest groups also got in on the action. The Association of Independent Schools in NSW used My School data to illustrate the wide variation in funding in both the public and non-government school sectors. The NSW Teachers Federation took them to task, saying that higher than average levels of funding in some public schools reflect the greater needs of their students. Again, both are correct. School income levels at the extreme high end of the distribution are not representative of the majority of schools in either sector.

My School, like Wikileaks, is founded on the principle that although information might be abused, that is not sufficient reason to withhold it from the public. Unfortunately, My School has not enjoyed the same support Wikileaks has received from public intellectuals. And, in a strange twist, the NSW Coalition also took up the fight with the aim of restricting how private citizens access information.

Shadow education spokesman Adrian Piccoli lamented in a recent letter to the NSW Teachers Federation that legislation against newspapers publishing league tables has not been enforced.

My School will never perfectly encapsulate the value of a school and will never please everyone. The socioeconomic index developed to classify ‘like schools’ has not mollified the anti-My School brigade; it has just become the focus of even more criticism. Provision of school finance data as part of a deal struck with My School opponents in the early days of its development has created yet another bone of contention. Arguably, that’s the point.

Information is power, and now a little bit more of it is in the hands of parents and the public.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 25 March. Enquiries to cis@cis.org.au. Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

The abominable Qld. health bureaucracy again: Defies data directive over deaths in emergency departments

QUEENSLAND Health has defied a ruling from the state's Information Commissioner to release critical data about the state's hospitals. In an unprecedented move, Queensland Health has taken legal action to keep secret the information about deaths in public hospital emergency departments.

Earlier this month, Right to Information Commissioner Clare Smith ordered Queensland Health to hand over the information to The Courier-Mail following a long-running battle to better understand the state's overwhelmed emergency departments.

The Courier-Mail lodged an RTI application in July 2009, sparking a fierce reaction from the department, which appeared to end when Ms Smith said the performance of emergency departments was "an issue of serious interest to the Queensland public" and more scrutiny would help improve patient care.

"Disclosure of the information in issue will provide details of the type and scope of review of specific emergency department incidents," she said in her decision. "It will better inform the public about review practices when deaths occur in public hospitals and contribute to debate on the performance of QH emergency departments. "In this review I am satisfied that the significant public interest considerations favouring disclosure outweigh those favouring non-disclosure."

In its decision to deny access, Queensland Health argued information was exempt on the basis that it would compromise hospital procedures and it was contrary to the public interest.

Ms Smith rejected Queensland Health's submission that it would compromise the hospitals' reporting procedures because they were "mandatory" and The Courier-Mail was also "not seeking access to information that identifies medical staff (or the names of patients)."

Queensland Health has now gone to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal in a bid to stop the release of the information and to reverse the decision. It is the first time a government department has taken that action.

Editor of The Courier-Mail Michael Crutcher said the newspaper would continue to fight for the information.

The RTI application was originally part of an investigation which uncovered that Queensland Health was publicly counting tens of thousands of patients as being treated in emergency departments when they had walked out without seeing a doctor.

"When then Attorney-General Cameron Dick spoke last year of the importance of the Right to Information process, he said that greater access to government information helped contribute to well-informed public debate," Mr Crutcher said. "We agree with him."

Premier Anna Bligh replaced Freedom of Information laws with RTI in 2009, heralding her "open and accountable" Government.


Former ALP voters in NSW 'spooked' by carbon tax

JULIA Gillard's carbon tax may have saved two high-profile NSW ministers from a Greens' assault in inner Sydney, but the move exacerbated the revolt against the 16-year-old Labor regime in its own heartland.

In western and southern Sydney, mining areas and long-established industrial towns, factory workers, two-car families and low-income households swung more heavily against Labor than the NSW average.

Echoing their federal leader Tony Abbott, incoming Coalition MPs in NSW argue that traditional Labor voters were spooked by the prospect of job losses, higher petrol prices and rising household power bills from a carbon tax.

"The people of Bathurst sent the federal Labor government a strong message on Saturday: they are opposed to a carbon tax," victorious Nationals Paul Toole told The Australian.

Mr Toole secured a 36.6 per cent swing, the state's highest, to win the seat, three hours' drive west of Sydney. The electorate is home to coalminers, factory hands, power workers and farmers, and takes in regional towns such as Bathurst and Lithgow.

"An electorate dependent on mining and manufacturing was worried about job losses and that a rise in petrol and electricity costs would severely affect their quality of life," he said. "There are many rural communities in Bathurst, too, fearing a threat of higher fuel prices under a carbon tax."

The swing in 14 manufacturing seats lost by the ALP on Saturday was 21.4 per cent, compared with the state-wide movement of 17 per cent, with some of the highest voter shifts recorded in outer-Sydney factory hubs such as Smithfield, Riverstone, Mulgoa and Camden.

After the 2007 NSW poll, Labor held 27 of the top 30 seats ranked by proportion of manufacturing workers; that number is now 13, with Labor seats such as Wollongong, south of Sydney, and Toongabbie, in the city's northwest, now on tiny margins.

Last week, BlueScope Steel chairman Graham Kraehe warned that a carbon price could be a "tipping point" for the steel industry, which could fail to survive in Australia in 20 years under the wrong carbon pricing plan. In the NSW steel-belt, the swing against Labor was 24.5 per cent in Wollongong and 17.3 per cent in nearby Keira.

During the campaign, Barry O'Farrell was aided by Mr Abbott and drive-time radio announcers in raising the prospect of higher petrol prices and inadequate compensation for families from the Prime Minister's carbon tax, which is scheduled to begin in July next year.

The anti-Labor swing was even higher in the 20 seats that have the highest proportion of households with two or more cars. Labor lost 10 seats in these car-dependent electorates, with an average swing of 22 per cent.

Commuter electorates far from Sydney's CBD, such as Riverstone (30 per cent) in the north and Menai (27.5 per cent) in the south, recorded particularly large swings against Labor.

But in inner-west electorates, Labor sources say the carbon tax played a significant role in shoring up support among progressive voters who had lost heart with the party's inaction on climate change.

In Marrickville, retained by Labor's Carmel Tebbutt, the swing against the outgoing health minister was only 5.3 per cent.

"Hard-core Labor voters were looking for a reason to stick with Labor and Carmel's personal appeal and Gillard's carbon tax certainly helped," says a Labor insider. "As did the Greens candidate's mistakes."

In Balmain, the voter shift away from Verity Firth appeared to be even less than in neighbouring Marrickville, but it may not be enough to stave off defeat for the former education minister in a seat with a 3.5 per cent margin that has become a three-horse race in a tricky count.

These inner-urban voters, who have the highest rates of public transport use in NSW and very low levels of car ownership, and tend to live in smaller homes, seemed less perturbed about the threat of higher petrol and power costs.

The federal Opposition Leader told a special sitting of parliament yesterday that Labor's "toxic carbon tax" would add $500 to household power bills.

"Nothing could be more calculated to have sabotaged the NSW Labor government's re-election campaign than this utterly maladroit intervention by . . . a Prime Minister who wants to inflict a toxic tax on the people of Australia - a tax which is not only toxic to families' standard of living and not only toxic to jobs in manufacturing industries but utterly toxic to the re-election campaign."

Ms Gillard yesterday rejected the idea that Labor's heavy defeat in NSW was due to a backlash against the looming carbon tax.

"Let's just be a little bit practical about this; we're talking about a state election after 16 years," she said. "I think NSW voters had made up their mind a long time ago and I don't think that they made up their mind on the basis of events in the last few weeks."


Australian Climate Commission shirks debate

by Bob Carter

Last Friday night, five of Australia’s six Climate Commissioners participated in the Commission’s first public consultation meeting in Geelong. They were Tim Flannery, Will Steffen, Lesley Hughes (all scientists), Roger Beale (environmental policy analyst) and Gerry Hueston (businessman); Commissioner Susannah Elliott (science communication) was not in attendance.

Australia already has an expensive federal Ministry of Climate Change, so why do we also need a new Climate Commission? Good question. The terms of reference of the Climate Commission are to:

* Explain the science of climate change and the impacts on Australia.

* Report on the progress of international action dealing with climate change.

Explain the purpose and operation of a carbon price and how it may interact with the Australian economy and communities.
Interestingly, only one of these terms of reference concerns science. Of course, if there is no science problem then by definition there is no economic or political problem. So the inclusion of two economic and political terms of reference indicates that the government’s view is that “the science is settled” – which won’t surprise anyone.

Similarly unsurprising, but nonetheless disappointing, is that all five of the Commissioners who attended the Geelong meeting manifested an alarmist view of global warming and its speculated human cause – industrial carbon dioxide emissions --- rather than presenting as even-handed dispensers of scientific and technical truth.

The scientific background to the Geelong meeting is this. Within the bounds of error, average global temperature hasn’t increased since 1995 (15 years) and temperature has actually been falling slightly since 2001 (10 years). Meanwhile, over the last ten years atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by 5%.

The conclusion is obvious. More carbon dioxide is not causing dangerous warming. Indeed, and despite it being an undoubted greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide emissions are not currently producing any measurable (as opposed to theoretical) warming at all.

There thus being no established scientific problem, about half of what the Climate Commissioners had to say in Geelong (about carbon dioxide taxes and related industry, employment and social issues) can be put aside – for it concerned non-solutions to a non-problem in aid of which has been proposed a non-justifiable new tax.

This leaves as the key issue the matter of what the Commissioners had to say about the scientific evidence for dangerous global warming. Perhaps they were going to share with us some new evidence or insights?

No such luck. What the audience got instead was a mish-mash of misinformation, much of it derived from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and discussion of which signally failed to distinguish between the undoubtedly real problems associated with natural climate change and the hypothetical problems that might or might not result from human-caused warming - should such ever manifest itself.

To begin with, the Commissioners consistent use of the word “carbon” when “carbon dioxide” was meant, and “climate change” when “dangerous global warming caused by human-carbon dioxide emissions” was meant, indicated the degree to which their views are aligned with the Greens’ carefully honed propaganda view of the world. Using this type of prejudicial language in any discussion on global warming is a litmus test for a lack of balance and perspective by the perpetrators.

Here is a small selection of some of the other incorrect technical statements, and their implications, that were made by the commissioners.

Assertion: Human-caused global warming is continuing, and we are in danger of seeing it augmented by positive feedback loops.

Reality: There is no direct evidence that the mild warming that occurred between 1979 and 1998 was mostly, or even measurably, a result of human carbon dioxide emissions, despite the pseudo-scientific assertion to that effect by the IPCC.

Second, there has been no global warming at all for the last 15 years despite, the operation throughout of the self-same feedback loops.

Assertion: Industrial carbon dioxide emissions are currently ~300 billion tonnes annually and they need to be limited to ~700 billion tonnes in future to stabilize the temperature at no more than 2 deg. C above the pre-industrial temperature.

Reality: There is no evidence that a 2 deg. C warming (which would take the planet back to about the temperature levels of the Climatic Optimum that occurred about 10,000 years ago) would be damaging for the environment, or for human activities in any substantial way that we couldn’t adapt to.

And, even should natural global warming resume in the future, as it very well may as part of a continuing bounce back from the hostile conditions of the Little Ice Age, there is no certainty that restricting carbon dioxide emissions will do anything to halt the rise. First, because of the diminishing warming effectiveness of every increment of carbon dioxide that is added to the atmosphere, and second because the assumed efficacy of limiting emissions to 700 billion tonnes is a projection of computer models that are known to be faulty.

Assertion: The Great Barrier Reef has experienced about 7-10 bleaching events since 1979. No bleaching events are known before this, and the events result when the ocean temperature SST rises about 1 deg. above the summer long term temperature. If we keep going, the reef will bleach every year by 2030.

Reality: Bleaching events on coral reefs are caused less by regional ocean warming per se than they are by the localised warming that occurs in areas and times of low wind conditions.

Bleaching events have been reported since 1979 because it is only after that date that a network of scientific observers was established on the reef. There is no evidence that any of these events was due to human activity, and to suggest that no similar natural events occurred before 1979 is silly.

In any case, the sea surface temperature of the Great Barrier Reef shows no change over the last 30 years, and the speculation that the reef will bleach every year by 2030 doubtless represents the projection of another of those legendary, and legendarily wrong, computer models.

In his introductory remarks to the Geelong meeting, Commission Chairman Tim Flannery stressed that his commission was independent from government direction, and was “determined not to deliver political spin”. Professor Flannery added that Australia “needs a clear, level-headed debate on the core issues” of the global warming matter.

Using those statements as criteria, how well did the Commission’s performance at Geelong stack up? Readers have probably instantly judged the answer to that question for themselves, but here’s my take.

First, and remembering that THE core issue is the scientific evidence regarding global warming, while Professor Flannery may want a clear debate, some of his commissioners deny that any debate exists, or has for 20 years; collectively, their attitudes also seem aimed at continuing to prevent one. Second, most of the examples of commissioners’ arguments discussed above may not represent “political spin” but they most certainly represent “scientific spin” of the most egregious type.

In essence, Australia’s new Climate Commissioners are simply peddling long discredited arguments about global warming that have been made for 15 years by the IPCC, all of which are carefully crafted to demonize human carbon dioxide emissions. Most of these arguments carry a political overtone, and most are espoused also by Australia’s current government, which makes it a little difficult to see how Professor Flannery is going to be able to exercise his Commission’s claimed independence.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to question Will Steffen's credentials as a scientist when he started drawing parallels between a molecule of CO2 and a fissionable particle.